Shiren the Wanderer Soundtrack (SNES), Koichi Sugiyama, 1995
It’s a bit surprising that it took publisher Enix a full seven years to create spin-off games for its monstrously successful Dragon Quest franchise. Enix’ first attempt to widen the Dragon Quest universe was 1993’s Torneko no Daibouken: Fushigi no Dungeon for the SNES. The game was successful enough to kickstart its own franchise: Mystery Dungeon. The next entry in this burgeoning series was Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, again released on the SNES. One of the system’s few roguelikes – replete with randomly generated levels and a punishing difficulty level – Shiren the Wanderer sold sufficient copies to create yet another franchise of its own. Looking to put their own creative stamp on the Mystery Dungeon series, developer Chunsoft differentiated the game from its Dragon Quest brethren by setting it in a fantasy version of feudal Japan.
For the game’s soundtrack, Chunsoft sought the services of a known quantity: Koichi Sugiyama, who had provided the music for all of Chunsoft’s previous Dragon Quest games and by this stage was one of game music’s most famed composers. While the Dragon Quest titles allowed Sugiyama to indulge in his fondness for Western classical music, their pseudo-medieval/fantasy settings didn’t give him much of an opportunity to draw upon Japanese musical influences (apart from Dragon Quest III’s “Jurong”). For Sugiyama, the Shiren the Wanderer soundtrack was a chance to remedy this situation, ensuring that his music matched the game’s visually distinct character.
On album, the Shiren the Wanderer soundtrack ended up taking a somewhat circuitous route. An album containing synth arrangements and one live orchestral medley of the SNES compositions was released on December 20 1995 (one day before Sugiyama’s Dragon Quest VI album with the London Philharmonic Orchestra!) The game’s music was later ported for Game Boy title Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer GB and the Nintendo 64’s Shiren the Wanderer 2. Those two scores were included on a 20th-anniversary album release by Chunsoft – but not the SNES version, for some reason.
Interestingly enough, the SNES original remains the strongest representation of this soundtrack across platforms. The N64 port adds a raft of new material that is of variable quality and the samples used are less vibrant than on the SNES; the Game Boy score handles the more lushly arranged SNES pieces well enough but predictably struggles to replicate solo instruments like the shakuhachi convincingly; and the 2008 Nintendo DS remake boasts underwhelming sample quality that is less life-like still than what’s heard in the N64 game.
And this is indeed the kind of score that thrives on the authenticity of its instrument samples. Not surprisingly, given the game’s setting, Sugiyama heavily relies on traditional Japanese solo instruments such as the shakuhachi and the shamisen to carry most of the melodies on the Shiren the Wanderer soundtrack. If a melody is given to a Western instrument, it is often chosen to match the Japanese instruments’ earthy and intimate tones, for example the harmonica on “Summit Town” or the flute on “The Valley Campsite”. In most cases, Sugiyama couches these melody leads in delicate, Western classically-inspired orchestrations. They create colourful and emotionally rich sonorities, courtesy of Sugiyama’s harmonic and instrumental subtleties. It also helps that the score sees Sugiyama at the peak of his melodic capabilities. Many compositions run for more than four minutes (looped), rolling out their instantly captivating melodies with confidence and patience.
What’s particularly striking about the Shiren the Wanderer soundtrack is how it creates a highly original, enthralling sound world that’s entirely in support of the game’s aesthetic. Sugiyama mines the timbres of his solo instruments to evoke a mood that is both down-to-earth and spiritual, using sounds that seem to have travelled across the depths of time. Listen to “Crooked Boulder Valley Kigan”, where Sugiyama retains interest through nothing but an extended shakuhachi solo with its jagged, non-melodic (to Western ears) progression. Like on Stéphane Picq and Pierre Estève’s Atlantis: The Lost Tales, only a single instrument is required to conjure an ancient culture’s wisdom and tradition. This contrast between earthly and otherworldly concerns (which are really just two sides of the same coin) is spelt out more clearly on “Summit Town” and “The Valley Campsite”, where rustic introductions lead into star-gazing, yet still homely B sections with unexpectedly chromatic string harmonies.
What’s even more impressive is how Sugiyama manages to unify not just Eastern and Western styles as well as earth and heaven on the Shiren the Wanderer soundtrack, but yet still more tonal contrasts. His town themes are predictably idyllic but still immensely creative. Take “Bamboo Forest Village Tabigara”, where chromatic, ostinato-like woodwind chords underneath the shamisen lead give the music a subtly haunting and ritualistic, almost religious mood. Still more original are Sugiyama’s dungeon tracks. There’s a wealth of highlights to choose from, be it “Neburi Mine”’s unexpectedly majestic string orchestrations, “Trial Caves”’ unpredictably proceeding shakuhachi solo that leaves the destination of this journey into the dark unclear, or “Mountain Spirit Cave” with its intriguingly agitated disposition and skittish changes of Eastern/Western melody leads. And let’s not forget that Sugiyama somehow manages to make the inclusion of electric guitar on “Monster House” and “Mountain Spirit Cave 2” work!
What helps to make the Shiren the Wanderer soundtrack such a coherent listening experience is Sugiyama’s clever use of a single musical theme. The SNES era saw Sugiyama’s interest in thematic integration within his game scores peaking. Dragon Quest VI is easily his most thematically structured score in that franchise, while Torneko no Daibouken: Fushigi no Dungeon based almost every single composition on the same theme. That was also that earlier score’s downfall, as it presented little worthwhile melodic material outside of that one tune.
Sugiyama doesn’t repeat the same mistake here, writing several secondary motifs and fresh melodies for most tracks. And while he deploys his easily recognisable main theme – ceremonial yet homespun – on most tracks, he repeats it in an impressive array of disguises. Listeners will encounter the theme most commonly in its solo shakuhachi iteration, but also on acoustic guitar (“Pet”), its progression twisted and stretched (“Legend”), on eerie strings (“Thief”) or harmonised glockenspiel (“Labyrinth”) – or even through the stuttering funk syncopations of “Monster House” and on electric guitar (“Mountain Spirit Cave 2”). It’s a masterful display of compositional chops and yet another reason to label the Shiren the Wanderer soundtrack Sugiyama’s best work outside of the Dragon Quest franchise and one of the best SNES RPG scores.
- 01 - Bamboo Forest Village Tabigara Sugiyama, Koichi 5:10
- 02 - Crooked Boulder Valley Kigan Sugiyama, Koichi 5:03
- 03 - Fateful Encounter Sugiyama, Koichi 2:24
- 04 - Monster House Sugiyama, Koichi 2:32
- 05 - Mountain Spirit Cave Sugiyama, Koichi 4:51
- 06 - Mountain Spirit Cave 2 Sugiyama, Koichi 2:34
- 07 - Neburi Mine Sugiyama, Koichi 3:15
- 08 - Old Cedar Road Sugiyama, Koichi 4:19
- 09 - Pottery Master Gaibara Sugiyama, Koichi 1:48
- 10 - Shop Sugiyama, Koichi 1:28
- 11 - Summit Forest Sugiyama, Koichi 2:41
- 12 - Summit Town Sugiyama, Koichi 4:59
- 13 - Tenma Pass Sugiyama, Koichi 5:25
- 14 - Trial Caves Sugiyama, Koichi 4:29
- 15 - Valley Inn Sugiyama, Koichi 3:51
- 16 - Waterfall Cave Sugiyama, Koichi 2:33
- 17 - Golden City Sugiyama, Koichi 3:43
- 18 - Ending Sugiyama, Koichi 5:48